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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 8)


"Doctor Minoret may be an able physician, on good terms with death, but none but God is eternal," said one.

"Pooh, he'll bury us all; his health is better than ours," replied an heir, hypocritically.

"Well, if you don't get the money yourselves, your children will, unless that little Ursula--"

"He won't leave it all to her."

Ursula, as Madame Massin had predicted, was the bete noire of the relations, their sword of Damocles; and Madame Cremiere's favorite saying, "Well, whoever lives will know," shows that they wished at any rate more harm to her than good.

The collector and the clerk of the court, poor in comparison with the post master, had often estimated, by way of conversation, the doctor's property. If they met their uncle walking on the banks of the canal or along the road they would look at each other piteously.

"He must have got hold of some elixir of life," said one.

"He has made a bargain with the devil," replied the other.

"He ought to give us the bulk of it; that fat Minoret doesn't need anything," said Massin.

"Ah! but Minoret has a son who'll waste his substance," answered Cremiere.

"How much do you really think the doctor has?"

"At the end of twelve years, say twelve thousand francs saved each year, that would give one hundred and forty-four thousand francs, and the interest brings in at least one hundred thousand more. But as he must, if he consults a notary in Paris, have made some good strokes of business, and we know that up to 1822 he could get seven or eight per cent from the State, he must now have at least four hundred thousand francs, without counting the capital of his fourteen thousand a year from the five per cents. If he were to die to-morrow without leaving anything to Ursula we should get at least seven or eight hundred thousand francs, besides the house and furniture."

"Well, a hundred thousand to Minoret, and three hundred thousand apiece to you and me, that would be fair."

"Ha, that would make us comfortable!"

"If he did that," said Massin, "I should sell my situation in court and buy an estate; I'd try to be judge at Fontainebleau, and get myself elected deputy."

"As for me I should buy a brokerage business," said the collector.

"Unluckily, that girl he has on his arm and the abbe have got round him. I don't believe we can do anything with him."

"Still, we know very well he will never leave anything to the Church."

CHAPTER IV

ZELIE

The fright of the heirs at beholding their uncle on his way to mass will now be understood. The dullest persons have mind enough to foresee a danger to self-interests. Self-interest constitutes the mind of the peasant as well as that of the diplomatist, and on that ground the stupidest of men is sometimes the most powerful. So the fatal reasoning, "If that little Ursula has influence enough to drag her godfather into the pale of the Church she will certainly have enough to make him leave her his property," was now stamped in letters of fire on the brains of the most obtuse heir. The post master had forgotten about his son in his hurry to reach the square; for if the doctor were really in the church hearing mass it was a question of losing two hundred and fifty thousand francs. It must be admitted that the fears of these relations came from the strongest and most legitimate of social feelings, family interests.

"Well, Monsieur Minoret," said the mayor (formerly a miller who had now become royalist, named Levrault-Cremiere), "when the devil gets old the devil a monk would be. Your uncle, they say, is one of us."

"Better late than never, cousin," responded the post master, trying to conceal his annoyance.

"How that fellow will grin if we are defrauded! He is capable of marrying his son to that damned girl--may the devil get her!" cried Cremiere, shaking his fists at the mayor as he entered the porch.

"What's Cremiere grumbling about?" said the butcher of the town, a Levrault-Levrault the elder. "Isn't he pleased to see his uncle on the road to paradise?"

"Who would ever have believed it!" ejaculated Massin.

"Ha! one should never say, 'Fountain, I'll not drink of your water,'" remarked the notary, who, seeing the group from afar, had left his wife to go to church without him.

"Come, Monsieur Dionis," said Cremiere, taking the notary by the arm, "what do you advise me to do under the circumstances?"

"I advise you," said the notary, addressing the heirs collectively, "to go to bed and get up at your usual hour; to eat your soup before it gets cold; to put your feet in your shoes and your hats on your heads; in short, to continue your ways of life precisely as if nothing had happened."

"You are not consoling," said Massin.

In spite of his squat, dumpy figure and heavy face, Cremiere-Dionis was really as keen as a blade. In pursuit of usurious fortune he did business secretly with Massin, to whom he no doubt pointed out such peasants as were hampered in means, and such pieces of land as could be bought for a song. The two men were in a position to choose their opportunities; none that were good escaped them, and they shared the profits of mortgage-usury, which retards, though it does not prevent, the acquirement of the soil by the peasantry. So Dionis took a lively interest in the doctor's inheritance, not so much for the post master and the collector as for his friend the clerk of the court; sooner or later Massin's share in the doctor's money would swell the capital with which these secret associates worked the canton.

"We must try to find out through Monsieur Bongrand where the influence comes from," said the notary in a low voice, with a sign to Massin to keep quiet.

"What are you about, Minoret?" cried a little woman, suddenly descending upon the group in the middle of which stood the post master, as tall and round as a tower. "You don't know where Desire is and there you are, planted on your two legs, gossiping about nothing, when I thought you on horseback!--Oh, good morning, Messieurs and Mesdames."

This little woman, thin, pale, and fair, dressed in a gown of white cotton with pattern of large, chocolate-colored flowers, a cap trimmed with ribbon and frilled with lace, and wearing a small green shawl on her flat shoulders, was Minoret's wife, the terror of postilions, servants, and carters; who kept the accounts and managed the establishment "with finger and eye" as they say in those parts. Like the true housekeeper that she was, she wore no ornaments. She did not give in (to use her own expression) to gew-gaws and trumpery; she held to the solid and the substantial, and wore, even on Sundays, a black apron, in the pocket of which she jingled her household keys. Her screeching voice was agony to the drums of all ears. Her rigid glance, conflicting with the soft blue of her eyes, was in visible harmony with the thin lips of a pinched mouth and a high, projecting, and very imperious forehead. Sharp was the glance, sharper still both gesture and speech. "Zelie being obliged to have a will for two, had it for three," said Goupil, who pointed out the successive reigns of three young postilions, of neat appearance, who had been set up in life by Zelie, each after seven years' service. The malicious clerk named them Postilion I., Postilion II., Postilion III. But the little influence these young men had in the establishment, and their perfect obedience proved that Zelie was merely interested in worthy helpers.

This attempt at scandal was against probabilities. Since the birth of her son (nursed by her without any evidence of how it was possible for her to do so) Madame Minoret had thought only of increasing the family fortune and was wholly given up to the management of their immense establishment. To steal a bale of hay or a bushel of oats or get the better of Zelie in even the most complicated accounts was a thing impossible, though she scribbled hardly better than a cat, and knew nothing of arithmetic but addition and subtraction. She never took a walk except to look at the hay, the oats, or the second crops. She sent "her man" to the mowing, and the postilions to tie the bales, telling them the quantity, within a hundred pounds, each field should bear. Though she was the soul of that great body called Minoret- Levrault and led him about by his pug nose, she was made to feel the fears which occasionally (we are told) assail all tamers of wild beasts. She therefore made it a rule to get into a rage before he did; the postilions knew very well when his wife had been quarreling with him, for his anger ricocheted on them. Madame Minoret was as clever as she was grasping; and it was a favorite remark in the whole town, "Where would Minoret-Levrault be without his wife?"

"When you know what has happened," replied the post master, "you'll be over the traces yourself."

"What is it?"

"Ursula has taken the doctor to mass."

Zelie's pupils dilated; she stood for a moment yellow with anger, then, crying out, "I'll see it before I believe it!" she rushed into the church. The service had reached the Elevation. The stillness of the worshippers enabled her to look along each row of chairs and benches as she went up the aisle beside the chapels to Ursula's place, where she saw old Minoret standing with bared head.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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